Wednesday, March 31, 2010

L'université Paul Verlaine - Metz

Metz's big public university is the Université Paul Verlaine - Metz, which enrolls about 14,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs through the Ph.D. Susie and I visited the campus last week. The school is located across the main channel of the Moselle from downtown Metz. It's a pleasant stroll from the old part of the city over to the campus and then back through the parks intertwined with the river. The computer science department is housed in part of this large building.

Despite being bisected by an overhead freeway, which separates the academic buildings from the dormitories, the campus has an open and gracious atmosphere.

Student housing is at the south end of the campus.

A gym and sports fields are just past the dormitories.

The campus is pretty much surrounded by water, with the Moselle on one side and the Plan d'Eau on the other.

Although the architecture isn't Oxford's, the waterside does have its charm.

And with the emerging warmth of spring, a kayaker paddled by the university.

Sarkozy's Image at Home

French President Nicolas Sarkozy just spent a few days in Washington, DC to meet with American President Barack Obama. As discussed in news accounts, for Sarkozy much of the purpose of this trip was to improve his standing at home in France, which clearly could stand improvement. His approval ratings have sunk to 32%, the lowest level since since his election as president in 2007. His party just lost, overwhelmingly, elections for regional governments; the Socialist Party and its allies now govern every region in metropolitan (i.e., mainland and Corsica) France except Alsace.

Sarkozy had, famously, initiated an inquiry into the nature of the "French identity;" this relates to issues of integration of France's substantial Islamic minority. The Guignols de l'Info, a satirical news program, addressed this last week. Showing a map of the results of the regional elections--all red except for Alsace, the anchorman observed that the question of the French identity has now been answered: it's Socialist.

To add insult to injury, Sarkozy's father has just published an autobiography containing cringe-inducing intimate details.

As a result, after being elected President with a message of collective opportunity ("Ensemble, tout devient possible"), Sarkozy now has electoral karma that resembles less the optimisim and dynamism of his campaign than the neglected, faded and torn posters from that election that can still be seen in places like highway overpasses.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010



Faces of Metz

Swans, Plan d'Eau.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Masked Parade in Bar-le-Duc

When we were visiting Bar-le-Duc, we were able to see a "masked parade" down the city's main street that afternoon. This event, I gather, was linked to an exhibition of masks at the city museum and to mask-making workshops for children. Despite on-and-off rain during the day, a couple of hundred people rolled, strolled and marched from one end of Bar-le-Duc to the other in a festival of fun and general wackiness.

Stilt-walkers and bicycles led the parade, which included children, adults, musicians, floats, and groups, such as a dozen or so people toward the end of the parade wearing--or at least holding--African masks in solidarity with Namibia.

The huge bike was certainly a nod to Bar-le-Duc's status as the place where the pedal bicycle (le velociped) was invented.

As the parade reached the main part of downtown Bar-le-Duc, a local band, wearing mask-hats, serenaded the paraders, who stopped walking to listen to multiple songs.

This fanciful fish rolled on bicycle wheels.

The parade included a marching band from Bar-le-Duc's sister-city of Greisheim, Germany, which is a small city just west of Darmstadt.

For me, the highlight of the parade was when members of the Greisheim band joined, impromptu, the Bar-le-Duc band for two songs.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Bar-le-Duc, the home of the powerful Ducs du Bar and once the residence of the Ducs de Lorraine, today is a scenic small city that serves as the capital of the Meuse, one of the departments of the Lorraine region. At its economic and cultural height in the 16th Century, Bar-le-Duc was a prestigious and prosperous city of weavers, merchants, and, particularly, nobility. Although they ruled a duchy independent of France, the Counts of Bar-le-Duc had close relations with France, and some members of the French royal family were born in Bar-le-Duc. Marie de Guise, wife of James V of Scotland, mother of Mary Queen of Scots, and grandmother of James I of Scotland was born in Bar-le-Duc, too. The wealthy and powerful nobles surrounding the courts of the dukes of Bar and Lorraine built many sumptuous mansions in the new style of the Renaissance.

By the mid-17th Century, though, the city began to decline. The dukes of Lorraine had moved to Nancy, the region suffered through the Thirty Years War, and the city's chateau and fortifications were dismantled in 1670 on the orders of Louis XVI. The textile industry, which had long sustained the city's economy, was in decline in the 19th Century. Most of the city was left behind by the economic progress that so significantly reshaped other cities in the region such as Metz. But this neglect proved salutary--the Renaissance mansions survived the industrial revolution--and today Bar-le-Duc is one of France's most remarkably well-preserved treasures.

The chateau and most of the mansions were built in the upper city. Little of the once-mighty fortifications remain; the clock tower is the only remaining castle tower, spared because its clock and bells still still had an important role to play in daily life. Today the tower, with the upper city, stands far above the valley floor.

To get from the lower city to the upper city on foot, you climb a series of staircases like this one.

When you get to the top, next to the clock tower, it's a short, and more horizontal, walk to the upper city's Place Saint-Pierre, where the Saint-Etienne church, built mostly between 1440 and 1537, faces rows of elegant mansions of the period.

The mansions are called hotels, but these were private residences. The Hotel de Florainville, at the far right in the photograph, was built in the 16th Century and boasts a harmonious Renaissance facade, to which ironwork, created in the 18th Century by Jean Lamour, the artisan of elaborate ironwork of the great squares in Nancy.

The houses of the upper city have varied styles and ornamentation but, taken together, form a wonderfully harmonious ensemble.

Against the neutral-warm stone facades, the Bar-le-Duc's shutters stand out in a palette of striking colors.

From the upper city's belvedere, you can look out at the lower city and the contemporary buildings on the slopes on the opposite side of the Ornain river. You can see the tower of the Notre-Dame church toward the left. The top of the Synagogue is also visible as an angled roof just over the right shoulder of the large light-colored building in the center of the photograph.

The lower city, although more the home of merchants than nobles, also retains many superb Renaissance houses. The Maison des Deux Barbeaux, for example, was built in 1618.

Bar-le-Duc's main shopping street, the Boulevard de la Rochelle, parallels the river, one block away. As a result, the quais have an almost bucolic calm.

The Notre-Dame church, whose foundations date from the Gallo-Roman era, is mostly a Renaissance structure that has long served as the city's parish church.

The train ride from Metz to Bar-le-Duc and back takes you through the valley of the Rupt du Mad. (Rupt is a local word for stream or river.) Susie and I had driven down the valley the other day on our way back from Prény. The countryside is just beautiful, with the Mad running past fields and villages.

Toward the middle of the trip, as the railway climbs toward the source of the Rupt du Mad, villages cling to hillsides.

Closer to Bar-le-Duc, the landscape is somewhat flatter, and the fields can take on the appearance of a landscape painting from the era of Bar-le-Duc's glory.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Cathedral cloister, Trier.


On the way back from Pont-a-Mousson to Metz, we drove up to the village of Prény. This tiny hillside village, which now has 385 inhabitants, is surmounted by the ruins of a castle that was once a major military factor in the region. Prény occupies strategic high ground overlooking the Moselle River.

The Chateau de Prény's central stronghold (donjon) was built in the 11th Century. By its peak in the mid-17th Century, the castle had 16 towers and dry moats. Just to get near the ruins, you have to drive through a narrow stone gate.

The castle was important enough that it was the residence of the dukes of Lorraine before they moved to Nancy. The battlecry of the Lorraine soldiers was "Prény! Prény!" With thanks for permission from the interesting Blog des Châteaux Forts, here is a drawing of the castle as it once looked.

The castle was beseiged multiple times, never falling. Indeed, it was powerful enough that, with the annexation of Lorraine to France in the 17th Century, it was demolished on the orders of Richelieu. The ruins passed through many hands, and are now privately owned. The owners have provided a detailed history of the castle and graciously permit visitors to see much of the ruins. The grounds have multiple signs warning of falling stones and prohibiting climbing the towers. After you pass through the stone gate into what was once the castle's courtyard, here is the main view of the ruins from the narrow street.

A path around the north tower leads to the interior of the stronghold.

The castle's remnants still impress, although its state makes you take entirely seriously the warnings about falling stones.

To leave, you drive back down through the gate toward the village just below.

From the road you can see the forested slopes of this part of Lorraine, much of which retains a wild aspect. On the way home we ended up driving on a gravel road past fields and orchards.

Things That Do Not Translate Well


For an afternoon's excursion, Susie and I drove to the town of Pont-a-Mousson, which is about 30 kilometers south--that is to say upstream on the Moselle--of Metz. The city was founded in 1250, and there has been a bridge across the river at this point since the Middle Ages, although the present bridge is a replacement after heavy damage in World War II.

The center of town is the Place Duroc. The Hotel de Ville, seen at right, anchors this triangular space of Renaissance buildings, almost all of which have conserved their arcades.

The best-known of the Renaissance buildings in Pont-a-Mousson is the Maison des Sept Péchés Capitau, at the right.

You can see the Seven Deadly Sins on the story above the arcade.

Many places in Lorraine have memorials dedicated to American forces that liberated the region in World War II. A building around the corner from the Place Duroc has a plaque that commemorates the liberation of Pont-a-Mousson by the U.S. Army's 80th Infantry Division.

As explained in a nice French/English bilingual pamphlet, the Hotel de Ville was built just before the French revolution, replacing a structure from around 1580 that had been destroyed by fire. While the exterior is in the relatively simple style of Louis XVI, the interior has some highly ornate rooms. Foremost among these is the Grand Salon, with decoration on Greek mythological themes.

The adjacent, much smaller Marriage Hall, where the town's civil marriages are performed, has elaborate woodwork and, in particular, three Aubusson tapestries depicting the life of Alexander the Great, based on sketches by Lebrun.

In the part of Pont-a-Mousson on the other side of the Moselle is the Abbaye de Prémontrés, an extensive 18th-Century monastery that now serves as a cultural and conference center.

The abbey's neoclassical buildings include a church whose facade faces the street. The church's interior, in keeping with religious thought of the period, is luminous, thanks to its enormous windows of lightly colored glass.

The church forms one side of the abbey's cloister; the other three sides are arcaded wings of the abbey's main building.

The arcades have been glassed in, which makes them habitable in winter while still promoting a sensation of light.

The abbey has three noted staircases, of which this one, the Square Staircase, is the grandest.

The Abbaye de Prémontrés stands right along the east bank of the Moselle, with colonnaded wings and gardens that border the river, affording beautiful views back to the center of Pont-a-Mousson.